Spoiler Alert: This article discusses plot details of the Disney Plus show “WandaVision” in great detail.
Superhero stories are often a mirror to the times we are in. From Captain America and WWII patriotism to Spider-man questioning authority in the 1960s to the gritty post 9/11 take of Batman. It doesn’t require overwrought literary analysis to see that the stories we choose to tell reflect their environment.
After a transformative 2020, then, you might expect that the first new Marvel property in over a year would somehow capture that zeitgeist. Yet on the surface, WandaVision seems to do everything it can to avoid embracing our present moment. The first three episodes take place almost entirely within the world of mid-century American sitcoms, parodying “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” and “The Brady Bunch” in sequential episodes. But in episodes four and five, it’s gradually revealed that all the sitcom nostalgia is taking place in a bubble created by the main character Wanda to earnestly try and escape reality.
At a certain level, then, WandaVision acts as wish fulfillment to the many around the world wishing to escape from a rather brutal year.
Yet, through the show’s run, Wanda’s own escapist fantasy reveals itself to be increasingly sinister with an ever-lengthening list of victims. So the series certainly isn’t suggesting that nostalgic escape is the answer.
It could likewise be tempting to suggest that the show is a simple political attack—i.e., Those who wish to return to a nostalgic yesteryear are merely living in a fake bubble waiting to be popped.
While the Hollywood swipe at the “Make America Great Again” crowd is too on the nose to dismiss entirely, WandaVision seems to be grappling with a question much less partisan and arguably even more central to our ongoing cultural debate: Does it matter what is real?
For those of the Marvel generation, those of us who were teenagers to young adults when Iron Man came out, we’ve seen a sea change on how this question is approached in the public square.
The book “Knowledge and Postmodernism in Historical Perspective” traces what it calls a “dramatic shift” from seeing the world as a “free-standing reality” to a “social construct” over the last decades of the twentieth century. Marvel movies have historically in ways big and small embodied this prevailing ideology.
Marvel movies have historically in ways big and small embodied this prevailing ideology.
Through the 1980s the influential philosopher Richard Rorty explained, “The public hanker[s] after objective truth … we should not try to satisfy this hankering, but rather try to eradicate it.”
By the time the Marvel generation reached school this paradigm had taken hold. I remember an elementary school lesson where our teacher demonstrated a car crash and then described how each of the witnesses saw something different, leading them each to differing conclusions. We were taught at the end of class that all of their perspectives were equally valid. There wasn’t one truth, but many truths.
Later I saw “objective truth” appear on a list of “logical fallacies” to avoid in a composition and rhetoric lesson (more recently, some have suggested believing in “objective truth” is even a reflection of “white supremacy”). Relativism, both moral and objective, was the reigning philosophy of the day.
I remember the frustration of religious conservatives, riding high on a wave of cultural relevance from the Reagan administration, fighting against this paradigm which seemed to limit their ability to broaden their influence because “yeah, well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man.”
Marvel movies have historically in ways big and small embodied this prevailing ideology. Tony Stark’s Iron Man was notable in 2008 for just what an ethically questionable person was being shown as a hero. Later in Marvel’s “Civil War,” they turned the superhero genre on its head, rejecting a good guy and a bad guy, but rather two sides that both made pretty good points.
In many ways, Wanda Maximoff exemplifies this ethos as well. Yes, from a certain perspective observed by the millions who watched “Avengers: Infinity War,” Wanda’s husband Vision was killed. But with Wanda’s ability to manipulate reality, “that’s just like your opinion.” And if she can create an idyllic suburban reality with a suddenly alive Vision, what is that to anyone else?
When SWORD, the government agency trying to end Wanda’s bubble, sends in an attack drone, she temporarily leaves her bubble to confront them and gives them this ultimatum: “You don’t bother me. I don’t bother you”—a phrase which may as well have been the motto of mid-90s moral-relativists.
But Wanda is far from an innocent hero in this drama. In a rather affecting scene, one of the characters in the town is temporarily released from Wanda’s mind control to reveal that he is deeply hurting and wishing to reach out to his family.
As the director of SWORD summarizes, “Our initial theory had Wanda Maximoff as one of many victims. We now know she is the principal victimizer.”
So is WandaVision ultimately channeling Evangelical-cultural-war angst by casting relativism as the bad guy in a superhero drama? Hardly.
As Monica Rambeau suggests, framing Wanda merely as the victimizer is a “bit of a simplification.” And while Marvel comics are no stranger to moving characters from hero to villain and back again, after three films with Wanda as a victim and hero, there is certain to be lingering audience sympathy.
What’s more, the battle lines on this particular culture war have been radically rewritten over the last five years.
Obergefell v. Hodges, the court case which legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, represented for many observers in America the legal peak of our cultural relativism. Yet having reached this peak, it seems as if the political utility of relativism waned.
In its place has seen an ascendent new orthodoxy. Bari Weiss, a former opinion writer for the New York Times last year mourned the lessening space for disagreement. She said that in the last two years the news media has come to consider truth as “an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” Wesley Lowery, a former journalist for The Washington Post, has observed the same trend. Rather than the moral relativism of the 80s, 90s, and 00s, Lowery observes this comes from a new “moral clarity.”
It’s fair to say our cultural era of multiple versions of co-equal truths is over. Marvel portrays a rather literal bubble whose main occupant won’t recognize reality.
Marvel portrays a rather literal bubble whose main occupant won’t recognize reality.
The Marvel generation has witnessed a reversal where national media praised Bill Clinton as a careful thinker for wondering what the definition of ‘is’ is to where editors having been forced to resign for wondering whether the sole purpose of creating the United States was to perpetuate slavery.
This new dominant paradigm has arisen just as the political right has embraced relativism, with their talk over the last four years of “alternative facts.”
Talk about cultural whiplash.
But the era of no objective reality left some damage in its wake. One of the most prominent was the creation of political bubbles—echo chambers many of us retreated into in order to hear our own point of view told back to us because it felt good and it was all the same anyway. The ascendant power of social media made this an easy reality.
But these bubbles are increasingly identified as problematic. They are described as incubators of white supremacy, incivility, and (in my own writing) toxic partisanship and political violence.
And into this reality, Marvel portrays a rather literal bubble whose main occupant won’t recognize reality, and as a result, is causing harm to those around her.
That WandaVision remains somewhat sympathetic to Wanda creating her bubble should come as no surprise. This new cultural “orthodoxy” and its rigid approach to epistemology is certainly new. There remains a lingering feeling more broadly that these bubbles used to be excusable back in the days of “Family Ties” where the fifth episode is set. In that case, perhaps the show reflects not just the new paradigm but an illustration of the shift in getting there..
As relativism loses cultural weight, though, maybe we should expect to see our heroes do more to fight those who refuse to accept reality. And even if WandaVision ultimately sympathizes or holds Wanda blameless for refusing to accept reality, there is little question that the bubble itself— accepting an alternative version of truth—will be the primary antagonist of the series.
Given all this, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it has been speculated that the next “big bad” to take the place of Thanos in Marvel’s Phase 4 is Mephisto. Preeminent among Mephisto’s powers? Altering reality.
As many on the political left reject relativism in favor of this “new orthodoxy” where objective truth is fundamental, we shouldn’t be surprised to see our media begin to make villains of those refusing to accept reality. Our pop culture will always act as a barometer of our changing cultural weather. Five episodes in, WandaVision appears to be doing just that for the role of relativism in our culture.
Content advisory: References to sex, comic book violence